Dr Anthony Fauci has repeatedly rejected claims from Republican Senator Rand Paul that the National Institutes of Health had funded gain-of-function research on coronaviruses in China, a narrative that has fuelled conspiracy theories as scrutiny intensifies on the origins of Covid-19.
During a US Senate committee hearing on the federal government’s response to the public heath crisis on 20 July, the GOP senator suggested Dr Fauci, the chief White House medical adviser and director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had lied to Congress over whether the agency supported such research.
“Senator Paul, you do not know what you’re talking about, quite frankly, and I want to say that officially,” Dr Fauci said. “You do not know what you’re talking about.”
The senator claimed Dr Fauci is “trying to obscure responsibility for 4 million dying around the world from a pandemic”.
“You are implying that what we did was responsible for the deaths of individuals. I totally resent that,” Dr Fauci said. “If anybody’s lying here, senator, it is you.”
Asked by Democratic Senator Tina Smith whether he wanted to address the senator’s remarks, Dr Fauci said: “This is a pattern that Senator Paul has been doing now at multiple hearings based on no reality.
“He keeps talking about gain of function,” he said. “This has been evaluated multiple times by qualified people to not fall under the gain of function definition. I have not lied before Congress – I have never lied certainly before Congress. Case closed.”
Dr Fauci had previously denied that NIH directly funded gain-of-function research – in which a studied pathogen is altered to make it more transmissible in an effort to better predict emerging diseases and combat them with vaccines – at a lab in Wuhan, China that was scrutinised as a possible source of the disease.
At issue is whether the NIH funded research into bat coronaviruses that could have created a more-infectious pathogen, or whether a naturally occurring or lab-manipulated virus been released from the lab.
A moratorium on such research was imposed from 2014 to 2017.
In 2014, the NIH awarded a grant to the US-based EcoHealth Alliance to study coronaviruses in bats, a project that was renewed in 2019 and cancelled in 2020 following the US outbreak of Covid-19. The grant distributed $600,000 to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has fuelled rampant speculation on right-wing media and conspiracy theories across social media depicting Dr Fauci as an architect of the pandemic.
NIH said in a statement in May that neither the agency nor the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases had ever “approved any grant that would have supported ‘gain-of-function’ research on coronaviruses that would have increased their transmissibility or lethality for humans.”
None of the virus samples used to conduct such research were or could have been transformed into the new coronavirus that causes Covid-19, according to multiple peer-reviewed reports and statements from researchers involved. The EcoHealth grant supported sample collection, not experiments.
The issue has become polarised in the media and among partisan officials, as scientists and researchers engage in more nuanced debate about the risks and benefits of such research now under fierce scrutiny as a political cudgel – deflecting from former President Donald Trump’s chaotic response to the public heath crisis while villainising its central figure now working under a Democratic administration.
“What we’re alleging is that gain-of-function research was done in that lab and NIH funded it,” Senator Paul said. “You can’t get away from it, it meets your definition and you are obfuscating the truth.”
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